Directed Viewing: “Melancholia” of the Heart

Welcome to Directed Viewing, the weekly series where I take a look at a director’s filmography—one movie at a time. If you haven’t been following along so far, you can find a big explanation of the whys and wherefores on the handy table of contents I built just for that purpose, including links to all the prior seasons.

After all this time, we’ve finally reached the end of the career of Danish director Lars von Trier—for now. After finishing my Kubrick project, I remember feeling so terribly sad that I was writing about someone who would never produce another movie, that I’d never again get to crack open that project and add some sort of addendum to the ongoing discussion of what these directors mean and are about. Thankfully, for von Trier I feel like we have decades left with the crazy bastard, and I hope to continue talking about his movies for as long as he makes them.

Above all else, this project has reminded me that sometimes uncomfortable art is worthwhile art, and that finding the discussion points of even the most controversial pieces can reap benefits. If you’ve been reading along these past few months, I hope there’s been some sort of greater appreciation for von Trier’s work, or if you haven’t you’ve thought about checking some of his movies out. Most of them aren’t nearly as difficult to get into as people make them out to be, and so many of them are beautiful and challenging and rewarding to people who are willing to approach them with a critical mind and an open heart.

We’re going to hop right into the meat of today’s movie now, but check out the bottom of this article for a final word or two, and a tease of the next project for Directed Viewing as a series. By the time you read this, it’s already going to be well into being written, and I guarantee it’s going to be a hell of a lot of fun to talk about.

Melancholia (2011)

I already wrote briefly about Melancholia in January when I posted my favorite movies of 2011 article (you can find it here) and looking back on it I stand by everything I wrote about the movie then. So much of this movie is neatly divided into two, a binary that represents one of the least segmented ‘big’ movies that von Trier has made in years. That sudden decrease in formalism makes sense when von Trier talks about the movie and why he made it: Melancholia isn’t so much another movie to prove a point as it is von Trier trying to capture his own depression and anxiety on film, to turn it into art and perhaps come to grips with it, or at least make people understand it.

Which makes it’s opening so powerful. No, not the sweeping vistas of lightning striking and birds falling around Kirsten Dunst in slow motion, or the images of a mother and child struggling to run through a golf course and sinking, nightmare-like, into the ground. The apocalyptic imagery that opens the movie is nothing more than a set up, a tone poem to gear the audience into the mindset of a place of profound loss and majestic cataclysm. No, what I’m talking about is after that opening, when suddenly we’re thrust into the intimate space of a newlywed couple sitting in the back of a limousine.

This pair, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), are suffering the kind of imperfect moment on their wedding day that only happens in Kodak commercials (back when they used to have them) or romantic comedies. Their driver can’t navigate the narrow bend in the dirt road leading to the villa where the reception is going to be, and the two of them are driven to fits of laughter by his ineptitude in driving the limo. They both get out and try to navigate the turn, only to decide to walk together the rest of the way. It’s the kind of ‘problem’ that only exists to highlight how happy everybody is and how perfect the day is going. It is calculated, with its gauzy bright cinematography and lazy handheld shooting, to feel as fuzzy and warm as possible.

And when they finally arrive at the reception, it is imperfect but in similarly not-actually-bad ways. Justine’s parents disagree with each other to the point of making a mild scene during their speeches, but so what? Everyone calmly takes it in stride, and doesn’t let it spoil the fun. It’s the kind of sour note that every great gathering needs to provide some sort of perspective, the thing you imagine the young couple will bring up and laugh about a decade down the line, fondly remembering the time that things had a moment where they were weird, but never actually deviated from the fairy tale day that was their wedding. That it’s shot in the same casual manner of von Trier’s comedies, handheld and naturally lit like it’s some sort of Dogme film, doesn’t hurt. It certainly casts it in sharp relief next to the very operatic opening montage and second half of the film.

And that’s when Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) pulls her aside. It’s a moment where our knees are cut out from under us, the movie popping the magical soap bubble when Claire admonishes Justine and demands she not make a scene. Justice, stunned, simply agrees with Claire, submissive to the point that this feels like a conversation the two of them have had time and time again. What scene was going to be made? There wasn’t anything visibly wrong with Justine, so maybe Claire’s the problem? We don’t know, because nothing is obvious, but suddenly something seems deeply wrong between these two sisters that form the heart of this party, Justine the princess in the middle and Claire the planner who made it all happen for her.

Which is the point. Justine’s rapid unraveling as the night goes on, the self-destruction by which she destroys not only her job but her marriage before the first night is over, is completely irrational and unexpected. It’s the sort of thing that comes out of nowhere and ultimately seems senseless even to Justine as she’s doing it. And that’s just the way of the depression that swells up and becomes the theme of the film halfway through: depression isn’t rational or expected, but it comes up from the depths to swallow even the most pristine of happy moments, leaving nothing but anguish in its wake. Justine keeps trying to latch onto other people with a desperation that borders on mania, trying to get her father to stay, or trying to vocalize her mental state to her mother, but ultimately these people either can’t or won’t help her. And even if they could, would it make a difference? Justine lashes out at everything good, including her offensively inoffensive, well-meaning husband.

In the end, it’s only Claire who sticks around, and as the movie shuffles into its second act Claire becomes the caretaker for Justine. It’s the role she seems to take begrudgingly, resentful of her sister in only the way someone who has gone through these motions many times would be. It’s not that she hates her, but there’s the exhaustion of many years of dealing with these same problems, a dim sense of being fed up but not willing to outright blame her for something as serious as Justine’s depression. And serious is the word for it, as Justine looks sallow and filthy and completely devoid of life. Wherever the vibrant bride went, somewhere in the gap of the film’s two sections she disappeared never to return.

And this is all without touching upon the rogue planet Melancholia itself, looming ever closer in a possible crash-course with Earth. As much as that forms the plot of the movie, it’s so little of the actual emotional content that I feel comfortable a year later simply touching on it, even if the scenes where they wait to learn if it brings them death and destruction were, upon first viewing, moments where my chest hurt with a panic so profound that I could barely breathe. And while that is a part of the appeal, that primal touchstone of deepest apocalyptic fears, ultimately it pales upon repeat viewings compared to the nuance with which von Trier handles the murky waters of mental illness and how it can have such a profound, life-changing effect on people.

I’m not sure how well Melancholia works as some sort of cathartic therapy for von Trier, but there is some comfort to seeing mental illness portrayed with a level of complexity that isn’t safe or wades into the decidedly uncinematic and often impossible-to-translate-well waters of psychotherapy. There have been a lot of movies about mental illness in the past few years, from strange messes like The Beaver to indie comedies like It’s Kind of a Funny Story, but all of them have some level of artifice that Melancholia, with all of its visual splendor, seems to lack. It is raw emotion, pure psychological angst, laid bare on the screen for us to witness and cope with the same way the people who actually suffer these things might cope with. It’s not tidy and there’s no happy endings, but what there is is truth, and ultimately that’s a pretty profound statement from a director who fills his movies with jokes upon jokes and slick philosophical ruminations masquerading as controversy.

Prepared to take the Good with the Evil

Those words, spoken at the end of every episode of The Kingdom by Lars von Trier himself, are ultimately the most conclusive statement that I could make about von Trier’s filmography. He’s a cartoon villain in the media who wants to show fundamental heartbreak in his films, an accused misogynist who has made half a dozen of the most profound statements in cinema about women and how society can abuse them and how deep the structures of oppression go, a provocateur who time and again states that the biggest controversies we can face are the conflicts of horror and beauty within ourselves.

Going through these films wasn’t easy or fun, sometimes, but they were almost always rewarding. And despite the content which can often be off-putting and complicated and even offensive, the movies themselves almost always handle those concepts with a responsibility that I wish more artists would be willing to claim over their work. Nothing feels haphazard, and even if I disagree with his choices they always seem well-considered. Lars von Trier, for all his bluster and mythos, strikes me as a very earnest filmmaker who often brings himself deep into a very dark place to try to offer up something of the contradictory, messy nature of humanity onto the screen for us to experience.

Here’s hoping that he never loses those qualities, no matter how crazy his future films might be.

Coming Attractions

After all this time doing so much art, I’m ready for a change of pace. And with the end of the year looming closer than ever, I wanted to do a director to prepare for one of the movies that’s going to (hopefully) blow all our minds come Christmas time. Which is why I’m breaking my rule of only chosing directors who I haven’t seen all the movies of. Which is why I’m expecting this next project to be one of more accessible, and certainly more entertaining, of all of the Directed Viewing seasons to date.

That’s right, join me back here next week for some motherfucking Quentin Tarantino.

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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3 Responses to Directed Viewing: “Melancholia” of the Heart

  1. thatfrood says:

    First of all, this was easily my favorite directed viewing you’ve done. It was enjoyable as all hell to read. You have a fantastic way of making me appreciate the things in a film deeper than I had before, as well as make me discover new things I had missed in the past. Thank you again!
    Secondly. QUENTIN TARANTINOOOOOOOOOO.

    • Thanks man. Not going to lie, I’ve been getting less and less feedback on these over time so I never know what I’m doing well or not. The viewers stay up, so people care, but … man. I’ve actually thought about scrapping this series in 2013 because of a seeming lack of interest. Glad it’s not all for naught.

      The Tarantino project is actually almost done, I have everything written through Kill Bill vol 2. it’s going to be a much different series, since I’m not going to bother recapping movies everyone has seen to death. Lots of focus on themes. So hopefully it’ll work out. And if not, there’s always whatever’s after that.

  2. Hiba says:

    I watched melancholia a while back and was fairly frustrated with the film, I had to watch it in pieces because although it was kind of angering to watch, it was also intriguing and almost addictive. I found a link to this though a blog, and after reading it I want to give melancholia a second chance.

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